TMH Field Trip: “America’s Most Haunted Forest”

As I pushed uncertainly down a trail that had ceased to be trail for the third time that day, I realized how terrifically entangled I was about to become in the surrounding plant life, and how aptly that very moment encapsulated my excursions into “America’s Most Haunted Forest” (-According to OnlyInYourState.com).

Entanglement is everywhere at Freetown Forest, and not just in its maddening trail layout. The property itself is a surreal mash up of unlikely mixed uses within a state park that is further enmeshed in a sprawling continuum of some half dozen protected forest properties. All are managed by different authorities- two state agencies, two nonprofits, municipal water, and Wampanoag tribal land. Most entangled of all is its history- an inebriated mix of strange facts, sensational media, campfire legends and internet threads all intergrown, an impenetrable underbrush that now dominates its cultural identity.

There’s quite a bit of ‘para’ literature that touches on the Freetown forest area, and plenty more archival news on some of the incidents surrounding it. The most extensive treatment is Christopher Balzano’s Dark Woods, a rambling and wildly credulous collection of bizarre claims and (mostly anonymous) sighting reports.

Ghosts, witches, satanic cults, impish creatures from indigenous lore known as pukwudgies, even zombies are said to have been seen mucking about these woods.

Freetown itself is said to be one of the three points forming the nefarious Bridgewater Triangle -a concept first introduced into popular folklore by Loren Coleman’s Mysterious America in the 1970s- and the more sordid aspects of its history are closely tied to surrounding “triangle” towns like Fall River and Raynham.

There’s no sense of that darker reputation, though, as you pass the official entrance to Freetown-Fall River Forest. There one is greeted by a bronze statue of a smiling shirtless young man, representing the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps prominent in the early development of this state forest. This area contains the park’s headquarters, a wading pool, areas for picnics and play, restrooms, large parking areas. The trappings here of a DCR recreational property could not be more ordinary.

A mile northwest up Slab Ridge Road from this visitors area lies what remains of Profile Rock, a celebrated landmark that gazed out across the expanse for centuries before its recent demise in 2019. A not-quite-natural rock formation probably caused by dynamite in the mid 1800s, it resembled a face in profile. Sometimes known as the Old Man on Joshua’s Mountain, it’s been said to resemble the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit, who died around 300 years before tourism-hungry white residents began to popularize that notion. We do know that Massasiot’s son Metacom encamped here with his forces to during the heavy bloodshed of King Philips War (1675-1676). The spirit of Metacom is said to haunt the rock, as it is said to haunt a fair number of rocks around southern New England at which he is thought to have located during the conflict. The half-buried memory of the bloodiest war per capita in American history, and of a tribal leader whose head was displayed on a pole in Plymouth for 25 years, haunts southern New England in more ways than one.

Above- remains of Profile Rock (2020) ; Below- both sides- photos from 2008 and 1902. The rock collapsed in June 2019, and the area surrounding it remains closed off by DCR.

To the southwest lies another road into the heart of Freetown forest, Copicut Road, book-ended at its mouth by a vast series of sand and gravel pits covering a dozen or so acres on both sides. It is in the woods along this average-looking forest road that the body of 15 year old Mary Lou Arruda remained undiscovered for 2 months after she was tied to a tree and left to die there in the fall of 1978.

James Kater was charged with Mary Lou’s murder, though his conviction would be overturned and re-upheld in a series of court-rooms over the next two decades, and there were a few, including Kater’s attorneys, who maintained her death was actually part of the larger saga of “Cult Murders” that would begin to unfold soon after. Kater’s conviction was finally upheld for the last time in 2000, and he died in prison in 2016.

An even more shocking series of events would rock the surrounding community the following fall, starting with the discovery of the body of 19 year old Doreen Ann Levesque outside a Falls River High School in October 1979. The investigation that ensued over the next few months unraveled an increasingly bizarre story of teens and twenty-somethings caught up in a ring of prostitution that also saw itself as a kind of cult. Testimony from multiple witnesses told a tale of Satanic pretenses, of orgiastic rituals and animal sacrifices conducted in Freetown forest. Rather than human sacrifice, however, it was love triangles and sexual jealousies within the cult-ish group that seem to have led to the murder first of Levesque, then 22-year-old Barbara Raposa and 20 year old Karen Marsden.

The full case is a considerably long and murky story, about which much is still unknown, and much of what is known comes to us through the questionable testimony of those convicted in the crimes- Carl Drew, Andy Maltias, and Robin Murphy. It hit the news in the early days of an era of Satanic Panics, where no expense was spared in sensationalizing every word of testimony, and it continues to unfold to this day. The homicides became known collectively as the Fall River Cult Murders, and are the subject of the book Mortal Remains, along with an upcoming docu-series called Fall River in development for the Epix network. While the three victims were found in nearby areas of Fall River and Westport, the killings have become indelibly associated with Freetown forest due to allegations (both from participants and local law enforcement) of ritual activity witnessed there.

The infamous “ice shack,” circa 1980

In the exploration of Freetown forest lore, considerable time and effort has been spent in attempting to discover the whereabouts or remnants of this shack, shown here in an image that originated with controversial Freetown police detective Alan Alves, discovered by law enforcement in 1980 and alleged to have been used in the group’s “ritual” activities. This apparently long-gone structure is referred to as “Carl Drew’s Shack” or the “ice shack,” and is sometimes blended in legend with the “Ice House,” a ruined stone structure across Watuppa Pond in Fall River that is also reputed to be a hotbed of occult activity.

Off of Copicut Road (where yet another Freetown legend says “The Mad Trucker” may try to run you off the road in his ghostly pickup truck) the descendants of Massasoit and Metacom’s people have been allocated a little over 200 acres of reservation land. It is used for gatherings and has no year round occupants.

Its more serene walking trails directly abut another thicket of harder-worn trails dominated by dirt bikers, which I saw by the dozens during the two days I spent exploring there.

This seemed to me the undercurrent theme throughout Freetown forest, a blending of natural wonders and remote stretches interwoven with park land heavily pummeled by humankind. Beloved by some, but also functioning as a kind of dumping ground for surrounding southeastern Mass- from abandoned cars in the 1970s to disturbingly large numbers of abandoned dogs in recent years.

There’s also a striking amount of graffiti to be found in certain areas of the forest, enough of it boasting 666s and pentagrams for those in the media and law enforcement who are inclined to such explanations to cite it as evidence of continued “occult” activity.

Not far from the Reservation, amidst another cluster of mostly unmarked and poorly mapped trails is Assonet Ledge, an impressive 80 foot outcropping leftover from the quarrying of arkose granite in the 19th century.

The water is said to be as deep as 70 feet at its center. It’s a popular spot for both family recreational visits and partying, occasional cliff-diving and plenty more graffiti.

Stranger accounts are plentiful as well, reports of ghostly figures jumping off and disappearing over the ledge, as well as unexpected suicidal thoughts and eerie feelings that one is about to be pushed over the edge. Some say this is the work of the pukwudgies, a creature increasingly being appropriated from Wampanoag folklore by the entertainment industry. Pukwudgies and their relations with the giant Maushop figure prominently into the Wampanoag story of the origin of Cape Cod, and are said to attack people with poisoned arrows and by pushing them off cliffs. It’s likely the proximity of the Wampanoag reservation has led to some cultural transmission and more widespread adoption of this idea in connection with Freetown forest.

Supernatural or not, the Ledge is not without danger- at least two people have died from falls there in the past 20 years, and others have been injured badly. As recently as this summer, a young man had to be air-lifted to the hospital when some friends went jumping off into the water there.

Proceeding south of the Ledge Road into the Fall River side of the property, the forest becomes less densely packed with trails, and relics of former structures offer a glimpse into the CCC’s work from past eras.

It is in the more uninterrupted woods south of here, off-limits to motor bikes, that the next murder in Freetown forest’s history is thought to have taken place.

In a bizarre and horrific incident in 1987, four young men from Fall River were all involved in the shotgun murder of Edward C. Cereto, a homeless man they mistook for an undercover cop.
While far less covered in the media, it remained one more gruesome occurrence linked to Freetown, mixing in the public imagination with frequent media references to “Satanic” activity locally, fueled in part by local celebrity “cult cop” Alan Alves.

14 years later, two more bodies were found not far from there, on the southern stretch of Bell Rock Road.

33 year old Edward Negron and 25 near old Risandro Medina were found riddled with bullets on July 13, 2001.

Jarin Perez was ultimately convicted in Bristol County Court of slaying the two men with 8 shots from an M-1 rifle when something went wildly wrong during a routine cannabis purchase. An appeal filed by Perez in 2005 failed to overturn conviction.

Given the list of tragedies connected to it over recent decades, it should probably be unsurprising that Freetown forest is the site of so very many ghost stories, of which there are lots more than the few I have touched on briefly here (for a full journey down the rabbithole, read Belanzo’s book).

“I’ve seen cycles of tragedy and a negative force popping up in different forms down through the centuries,” Belanzo said broadly in a 2006 Boston Globe interview, and that seems fair enough as far as it goes.

Me personally, I would go a step farther and label that negative force humans. Aside from a couple moments of unusually strong heights-discomfort looking over Assonet’s Ledge, which did strike me strange, the impression I got most clearly throughout the area is of the intense impact of human life that can be seen everywhere.

This beautiful bioreserve has become a landscape of acute contradictions, a secluded stage where residents of surrounding towns can dump refuse and sometimes play out their more savage impulses. Perhaps it has always been that way, all the way back to the 1600s, at least. Function has come to dominate form at Freetown forest, in a narrative decided over generations of beer-and-weed soaked camp fire sessions and sporadic half-assed séances. In a social process of folkways more intricate and winding even than the trails cut by drunken shirtless CCC men, that narrative of a Satanic Forest has taken hold in a way that is unlikely to go away any time soon.